Successful Elderhood and Its Obstacles

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A Sideways Approach

 

I’m working up a new series of posts on the many obstacles along the path of what I will call “successful elderhood.”  Being that I am such an optimist, you might be wondering why I’m using the more formidable sounding “obstacle” as opposed to a much friendlier sounding term like “challenge.”  The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines obstacle as:

Something that makes it difficult to do something; an object that you have to go around or over: something that blocks your path.

I use the term “successful elderhood” because I know it is a loaded one! How we talk about aging reflects our thinking about it and often also our feeling toward it.  Is it merely a decline, a forced slowing down with no redeemable benefits  – or is it a process that can be incorporated into the accumulation of wisdom – for the benefit of the individual as well as their community?  Instead of quoting words of Viktor Frankl’s wisdom, I’ll quote the late theologian J. Sidlow Baxter, who asked

What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude toward it. Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity.

Obstacle and opportunity? Well, there’s a good one! I will try and use this as a template for paying attention to the lenses through which we view aging and elderhood.  Of course I’m showing my bias already, just from using the term elderhood – I’m presuming there is a stage of human development that is capable of a fuller embrace of the unknown, of the mysteries of life, that can allow us to love the  lives we have to live, despite all the odds and opinions to the contrary.  This certainly is not an easy path, it is probably beyond the tee shirt slogan “getting old is not for sissies,” so I’ll quote the Sufi poet Rumi here:

A heartbreak shakes the yellow leaves from

The branch of the heart

So fresh leaves can go on growing . . .

Heartbreak pulls up the roots of the old happiness

So a new ecstasy can stroll in from beyond.

Heartbreak pulls up all withered, crooked roots

so no root can stay hidden.

Heartbreak may pull many things from the heart

But in return it will lavish kingdoms.

From: Andrew Harvey, The Return of the Mother (1995) at 156.

This idea of “successful elderhood” brought me back to a great book I (mostly) read several years ago – Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006: Random House).  Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, wrote this compelling book based on her many years of research on motivation and other important topics.  Much of the book readily applies and is aimed at motivating kids and young people toward building the successful trait of resilience, and away from the ossifying talent-obsessed entitlement way of thinking about who we are and how we operate in the world.  Her basic premise, reflected in the title “mindset”, distinguishes the fixed mindset from the growth mindset and her work shows the advantages and offers much practical advice about overcoming obstacles (instead of ignoring or denying them) with a growth mindset.  Feeling bad about one’s situation does not mean that one is not able to take constructive action.  See Mindset at 221-24.

Whether we look at an obstacle as an external setback or an internal one can make all the difference.  If we change the lens through which we look at aging, that all our hard-earned capabilities are being taken away from us by some external subjective and unpredictable process known as “aging” . . . .  then perhaps all we are really looking at are challenges, challenges to our thinking in some fixed and no longer relevant context, a sense of entitlement to what we have earned, which invites us to go beyond those “yellow leaves” into a new and unfamiliar territory.

I especially liked what Dweck wrote about the growth mindset and self-control: “Then there are the setbacks.  They [people in a growth mindset] know that setbacks will happen.  So instead of beating themselves up, they ask: ‘What can I learn from this?  What will I do next time when I’m in this situation?’  It’s a learning process – not a battle between the bad you and the good you.”  Id. at 235.

Dweck’s approach is refreshing and liberating and has much to offer in support of a developmental view of elderhood.  Here’s a TedxNorrkoping video in which Dr. Dweck talks about “the power of yet.”

I will close for now and look forward to my next post on Elderhood and The Economy of Gratitude.   I will tip my hat to the motivation provided by my summer reading list, which has included Robert Emmons’ Gratitude Works!, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

Peace out!

©Barbara Cashman  2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Conscious Aging, Memory and Longing

Tex and Barb at Medicine Bow  Lodge & Guest Ranch

Tex and Barb at Medicine Bow Lodge & Guest Ranch

The theme of this post is about remembering and forgetting, for a number of reasons I suppose.  I didn’t forget to publish a post last week, but was absent, away from my everyday for several days, remembering how to ride a horse (hence the picture of me and my trusty mount Tex, a slightly cantankerous nine-year-old gelding who loved to snack on the abundant flowers).  Forgetting often overtakes us on many different levels.

Plato’s fascination with theory was an early way out of the direct experience of being human. Thinking about our human experience is a well-recognized way of distancing ourselves from that experience (even if we don’t think about it in those terms) and is itself a form of forgetting.   Recent works in neuroscience continue to wrestle with the theory of what it is to be conscious.  A recent favorite of mine is Phi: A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul (2012), by professor of psychiatry Giulio Tononi.  His work is well-written and artfully illustrated and I liked especially his chapter 17 entitled “Galileo and the Bat: In which it is feared that the quality of experience cannot be derived from matter.”    In the nine page chapter, Tononi tells the story of the cave (hey, doesn’t that sound like Plato?) and the demise of the bat who was one of its inhabitants.  It is a beautiful illustration that questions how science can describe consciousness – either as a measure or a quality. And further – what can determine it (consciousness) when we humans share the same basic infrastructure or what would seem to be the physical architecture of awareness but that gives rise to so much variation.  Where I part ways with this is in the search for the piece of the brain that contains consciousness, the idea that the quality of consciousness is still determined by some quantity or configuration.  I think this has been previously attempted . . . !

So, if I might suggest an antidote to all these measurable, reducible, objectified search tools, try The Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times, by Rene Guenon.  I don’t pretend to understand or agree with much of what he had to say, but I do think his point that the immeasurable quality of space is the real space (not the quantifiable space) is refreshing to read and offers much hope for finding a way out of our collective forgetting that plagues so many of us on an individual and collective level.

Another type of forgetting is dis-integration.  This is the reverse of what memory has been described as by Daniel Siegel in Mindsight: Memory is a layering of our experiences which have been processed and encoded, and the integration he describes occurs at a horizontal (left and right brain), vertical (from the lower limbic region up to the cortex), and more subjective integration that includes our personal story, present state of mind, time and the interpersonal element of integration.  The last part – interpersonal integration – Siegel describes as “the ‘we’ of well-being.”  Mindsight, passim at 71-76.

What do we remember and what do we forget? So I return again to the New Yorker article “This Old Man.” In that article, nonagenarian Roger Angell writes beautifully from the heart about being surprised by getting to such an old age, but notes his biggest surprise (#1) is the unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.  Based on my reading of his article, I would say the secret to his happiness is longing.  Longing is searching.  As Ravi Ravindra wrote in Pilgrim Without Boundaries:

In being alive to the search, we are alive.

I think this longing, this search is a form of remembering, a remembering of something that is elusive, a connection and not really a memory at all, by the measurement of neuroscience.  Where does it come from?

Another scientist has a different take on why we search and strive to bond with others, particularly in intimate relationships.  In Our Drive to Bond, Bruce Lipton writes about the “fundamental biological imperative that propels you and every organism on this planet to be in a community, to be in relationship with other organisms.”  This type of remembrance is undoubtedly awareness, but obviously on a broad scale indeed, even if it is felt in an acutely personal way.

There are so many ways to address this longing, this remembrance of connection that drives us forward and toward it.  I will close this post with an excerpt from a poem, about our life – looked at as experience that is the long forgetting: This is from William Blake’s Ode (Number 563, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, ll. 59-65);

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,

          And cometh from afar:

        Not in entire forgetfulness,

        And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come . . .

You can read the entire Ode here. I’m sure I’ll be back to writing about more practical topics soon, but as the summer blossoms fade and the harvest arrives, I couldn’t pass up this contemplative topic!

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Longevity Planning – Planning for Long Life and Likely Disability

 

denver elder law

Lucina’s Spring Blossom

As you have undoubtedly noticed, Americans are living longer than ever before.  One of the side effects of this longevity is a fairly strong likelihood that an incident or period of incapacity or disability will accompany that long life.  Yes, we baby boomers seem to think that if we just continue to exercise and eat right, somehow we will get a ticket to longevity that ensures our vital longevity.  After all, we boomers practically grew up with Jack LaLanne!  Long before Hans und Franz of SNL fame, there was the blue-jumpsuited “Godfather of Fitness” (I learned of this moniker this only as I did a bit of web research).  LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96, with nary a gray hair on his head!

So what about this longevity issue – I am thinking of it in the context of the death denial and youth glorification convergence . . .?  I’ve written about it before.  Death strikes fear in people’s minds, and even in our hearts.  For many it is a major anxiety producing thing to consider, let alone contemplate.  Ernest Becker wrote about this in The Denial of Death.  A favorite book of mine stands in contrast to this well-recognized fear, in Who Dies, authors Stephen and Ondrea Levine take a completely different approach to this fear and address it in the context of conscious living and conscious dying.

So how we view this life and death experience, in terms of what we fear and what we embrace, what we can know and what remains mystery, this is far from a “standard” human response.  I might be getting off-topic here, but let’s face it, with this kind of a topic it’s hard to know where things will lead!  I don’t think we’ve always lived like this – with such “faith” in medical science as something that will somehow protect us from the ravages of illness, old age and eventual death.  I am pretty certain that our scientific progress in understanding more of how our bodies function, age and eventually die, has brought about a thinking that we can somehow “manage” death.

And so we hold death at bay, we call it the enemy and we make our lives a struggle against the inevitable.  Well, if that is the sum of a life’s purpose . . .  I would say “that ain’t much!”  When many of us are ill and eventually die, we often employ that language of warfare.  Example: John Doe fought bravely in his struggle against metastatic prostate cancer.   On this topic of battlefield euphemisms, my friend Liz sent this excellent article to me from “The New Old Age.”  Bottom line is, the militaristic language, the fighting words we see so often and hear in conversation do nothing to empower our lives and our sense of purpose in our lives.  I would argue that this language and its approach rob us of our purpose, disempowering us by making us random and senseless victims of our lives in our death.  Remember the announcement of the war on cancer by President Nixon?  Most recently we have the war on Alzheimer’s announced by President Obama.

So back to the longevity planning theme and the fear of illness, frailty, disability . . . .  life on its own uncertain terms.  The fear of disability is more troubling in many respects than the fear of death.  Much of it springs from youth glorification, an extension of that anxiety around death which often includes processes, occurrences and diseases that often precede death.  Is the glorification of youth simply an extension of the denial of death?  I am not asserting that the American cultural obsession with the denial of death is a recent occurrence or produced by the baby boomer generation.  No, it goes back further than that.

I have written previously about the fear many of us have of getting Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia.  I think there is also plenty of evidence that people fear incapacity at least or perhaps more than the fear of dementia.  Of course, dementia is only one form of incapacity, so the questions may blur the distinctions. There are of course a myriad of other fears which surround aging.  Many of them don’t have to do with losing capacity so much as retaining it in our old age.  I enjoyed reading Roger Angell’s article “This Old Man” in The New Yorker.  It is a story about all those human needs and desires we carry with us into whatever age we find ourselves.  There is no handbook on how to behave when you find out that your 85 year old mother, who has been widowed for less than two years, has started dating on the internet.  And what about physical intimacy in the assisted living or nursing home?  I’ll write more about our cultural fear of aging soon.

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Conscious Living, Engaged Elderhood and Spirituality

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Okay, it’s Thanksgiving week, which means many of us will be spending time with family and others on whom we depend for love and support.  It is a perfect time to talk about end-of-life issues and other big questions so important to our living of life. There is also that detail that we’re getting close to the end of the year, which means it’s  list-making time . . . .  As a self employed person, I make every effort to start this in November! So, in this post I’ll combine that conscious living topic with a list.  On the top of  the list for my purposes here is a quote from a favorite poet of mine, e.e. cummings, who observed

unbeing dead isn’t being alive.

Aging and community, makes me think about the topic of aging as a spiritual practice.  Lewis Richmond is an author who has written about that very topic, and he has a great youtube video about this you can watch here. Conscious aging is really about what we do with our lengthening days, what is the purpose of our longevity and how will we spend it?  These are big questions that I’ve blogged about before and will again in the future.  What I like about Richmond’s message is its simplicity.  He defines the spiritual practice of aging as

paying close attention to the things that really matter.

Conscious aging and engaged elderhood can help us get to a place where we want to be at the end of our lives, a place where we are not burdened with regrets in our backward look at our life, our “life review.”  That reminds me of that 1991 Albert Brooks film “Defending Your Life.”  Will we wait till the end, after it’s all over and too late to make changes, or can we live and age consciously and make adjustments as we go along.  The answer is of course as unique as each of us, each of our lives.  Fortunately, if we are inclined to think about making these changes in our lives, there are many models and lots of support.

So, on that topic of living consciously and without regret, here’s an interesting list from an AARP article from 2012.   The author, Bonnie Ware, worked for many years in palliative care (though it sounds more like hospice to me) and so spent time with many folks during the final weeks and months of their lives.  The theme of this article resonated with me as I had recently explained to a couple clients the therapeutic benefits of estate planning and considering one’s own mortality in the story of Alfred Nobel and how he came to fund the renowned prizes named for him.  Hint: he got to read his own erroneously published obituary, and so he could dramatically change the course of his legacy.  Yes, I wrote a blog post about it and you can read it here.    So back to the list. I think this  list can be used as a great jumping off point for the search for meaning in our lives.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Ware lists this as the most common regret of all.  I think we tend to idealize this and forget that this one requires real courage to live in and to enact during our lives.  We often don’t think about how difficult it is until we sense that we are not on that path to ourselves, which is a path uniquely our own and which can’t be defined by others or external standards or measurements.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

The author worked with older people and  noted that “this came from every male patient that I nursed.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

This is essentially the courage to become who we already are.  Sounds like I have tenses mixed up – but I don’t!  On that topic of expressing feelings, I think of Dr. Ira Byock’s four things: I love you, please forgive me, I forgive you, and thank you.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

This regret is also about the choices people have made, conscious or unconscious, about how their time was spent.  I liked Ware’s observation under this point: “that is all that remains in the final weeks: love and relationships.”  I think this is an important point that we can be reminded of if we choose to embrace our mortality and the uncertainties of life.  Perhaps it is really all that we had all along, all we had that mattered and when we strip away all the things that we accumulate in our identities, the love is what remains.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

Might sound odd, but Ware notes that many folks didn’t realize until nearly the end that happiness is a choice.  This seems to be such a huge secret for so many people.

In closing, I found a nice list of books for older adults, those in the “second half” of their lives here.    I also liked the tab under “mystery” which is offered as a means to develop a heightened sense of wonder in the face of a mainstream reductionist approach to living.  Wonder and uncertainty, the beauty of the present unfolding is far preferable for many of us than the tidy certainties we tell ourselves to explain away nearly every beautiful wonder of this world. I think Ware’s article confirms this in many important ways.  May each of us have a meaningful Thanksgiving!

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org